Death in 24 Hours: anthrax, industry and agriculture in the nineteenth century

Dr James F Stark, Research Fellow, Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds

Co-presented with the Unit for the History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Science

9 April, 2014

Anthrax is one of the oldest diseases on the planet. Although it is now known almost universally as an agent of terrorism and biological warfare, it has appeared in many different guises throughout history: as Cumberland disease in stock animals (after the administrative district in New South Wales), woolsorters’ disease in factory workers handling fleeces, and a host of other highly specific conditions, such as Siberian plague, Persian fire, and malignant pustule. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, these separate diseases had all been subsumed under the universal name of “anthrax”. But how did this transition come about?

In this lecture we will see how the expansion of international trade and exchange of medical knowledge in the nineteenth century gave anthrax its modern identity as a disease of people rather than animals. The story takes in a diverse range of international communities, including enterprising French bacteriologists, Australian stock-owners and veterinarians, and the factory workers and owners of industrial Britain, who all combined to create the idea of modern anthrax as we know it.

Jame Stark

James Stark is a Research Fellow in history of medicine at the University of Leeds, UK. He is the author of The Making of Modern Anthrax (2013), and specialises in the history of infectious disease and public health, particularly global histories. His current research includes an examination of the history of patents in medical technologies, a history of technologies associated with rejuvenation and anti-ageing, and a critical review of the role of digital technologies in heritage. He is also Chair of the Outreach and Education Committee of the British Society for the History of Science.